The Five Lents of Francis

The Five Lents of Francis

This blog continues our Lent 2021 series of reflections on the Franciscan Intellectual-Spiritual Tradition by a variety of women and men Franciscans.

The early sources about the life of Francis mention five “Lents.”

A Lent to prepare for Easter and for Christmas

For 40 days before Easter, Francis observed the “Great Lent,” what we know as Lent today.

Francis also observed a similar period of 40 days of fasting and prayer in preparation for Christmas, beginning after the Feast of All Saints on November 1. It was at the end of a Lent preparing for Christmas that Francis arranged for the display of the Nativity scene at Greccio.

Both Lents were observed by his brothers as well (Later Rule, Chapter 3).

A fast like Jesus’ in the desert

Francis also recommended a fast of 40 days after the Epiphany, January 6. On this day in Francis’ time, the Church celebrated the Baptism of the Lord (as well as the visit of the Three Kings), so Francis reasoned that Jesus began his fasting of 40 days in the desert on January 7.

A Lent in summer

In some years Francis also observed a Lent in summer, from the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, June 29, patrons of the Church of Rome, until the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (whom Francis calls “the virgin made church”), which occurs on August 15.

A Lent to honor Saint Michael

Finally, Francis observed out of personal devotion a Lent in honor of Saint Michael after the Assumption until September 29. It was during such a “Lent of Saint Michael” that Francis received the vision of the Seraph on the mountain of La Verna, followed by the appearance of the stigmata on his body.

During the Lent of Saint Michael at La Verna in the fall of 1224, Francis was accompanied by Brother Leo, with whom he prayed the Office, while spending most of the time in prayer alone.

Fasting, solitude, and prayer

We have indications from the early sources about how Francis observed these Lents: in fasting, solitude, and prayer.

One year Francis spent the “Great Lent” before Easter on an island in Lake Trasimeno, near Perugia. A fisherman rowed him out to the island, and Francis took with him just a little bread and asked to be brought back to shore at the conclusion of Lent.

During the Lent of St. Michael at La Verna in the fall of 1224, Francis was accompanied by Brother Leo, with whom he prayed the Office, while spending most of the time in prayer alone.

Early Franciscan spiritual practice

If these Lents are indicative of his usual practice each year, Francis would spend probably three and perhaps as many as five periods of about 40 days each in relative seclusion, dedicating himself to prayer and fasting in solitude, sometimes with one or other of the brothers, sometimes by himself. This would amount to about four months or as much as seven months a year in a secluded, contemplative way of life, frequently spent in the hermitages, a characteristic feature of early Franciscan spiritual practice.

Anxious to know the will of the Lord

Basically, Francis was creating the space and time to step apart and reflect on how God was asking him to deepen his commitment in terms of the ever-changing situation of his life. “When blessed Francis stayed constantly in a place to pray . . . he was always anxious to know the will of the Lord, about how he could please him better” (Assisi Compilation, 118).

Recommitment to fundamental objectives

Most Franciscans today, committed to many activities, do not have the time to spend all of Lent in a hermitage, let alone make several “Lents” a year. The challenge is still there for us to create sufficient mental space during this sacred season to “go apart” from our daily activities to discern God’s continuing call, to “know the will of the Lord. . . how we might please him better.”

The example of these five Lents of Francis can encourage us to seek out times of solitude for prayer and silence and fasting during our preparation for Easter this year. Simplifying our lives by removing the excesses of noise and food and drink, turning toward our neighbor in need:  all of these are ancient Christian practices embraced by Francis and life-giving for our world today. Lent is a time to recommit ourselves to our fundamental objectives!

As Francis said:

“Now that we have left the world, we have nothing else to do but to follow the Lord and to please him. . . . . Therefore, let us be very much on our guard that, under the guise of [gaining] some reward or [providing some] assistance, we do not lose or take our mind away from God. But in the holy love which is God, I beg all my brothers [and sisters]. . . . after overcoming every impediment and putting aside every care and anxiety, to serve, love, honor and adore the Lord God with a clean heart and a pure mind in whatever way they are best able to do so, for that is what God wants above all else” (Earlier Rule 22: 9, 25-26).

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Image of “Saint Francis in Ecstasy” by Giovanni Bellini [public domain].
William Short

Written by : William Short

William J. Short, OFM, is a Franciscan friar of the St. Barbara Province (USA) and professor of Christian sirituality at the Franciscan School of Theology at the University of San Diego and director of the Collegium S. Bonaventurae—Frati Editori di Quaracchi. Born in Seattle, WA, he received his education at the University of San Francisco (BA), the Franciscan School of Theology/Graduate Theological Union (MA), and the Pontifical Gregorian University (STL, STD). He has collaborated with Wayne Hellmann, OFM Conv, and Regis Armstrong, OFM Cap, in the 3-volume series Francis of Assisi: Early Documents and with Christopher Stace on the English edition of the Book of Conformities of Bartholomew of Pisa.
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